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NASCAR playoffs: Will the Big Three rule?

Posted by Eric Fisher On September 15

It would be surprising if anyone other than Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. won NASCAR’s 10-race playoff. That’s how dominant the big three have been this season.

It’s really the Big Two, with Harvick winning seven races and Busch winning six and leading in points. But Truex is the defending champion, and his four wins are nothing to sneeze at.

The playoffs begin Sunday (3 p.m.) with the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR conducts its playoffs in four stages. The bottom four drivers in the field, which begins with 16 participants, are eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth races. The second stage begins at Dover on Oct. 7, so the field will be whittled down to 12 by that point.

Let’s evaluate the 16-driver field.

NO SHOT: Alex Bowman had the fewest regular-season points of the 16 drivers in the playoff field. Bowman only had one Top 5 finish all year, so he will likely be eliminated at the end of Stage 1. The same is true of Austin Dillon, who only finished in the Top 10 four times and didn’t even finish in the top 16 in points but qualified for the playoffs by winning the Daytona 500, the year’s first race. It’s been a long time since the Daytona 500. Aric Almirola only had one Top 5 finish all year, so he’s likely to be on the chopping block before reaching Dover.

NOT THEIR TIME: Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are young drivers on the rise, but it’s not their time yet to challenge for a championship. Larson, 26, had 14 Top 10 finishes, but he doesn’t have a victory yet this year. Blaney, 24, also is winless and only has five Top 5 finishes. Jones, 22, won the pole for the playoff-opening South Point 400 and won a race this year, but he still isn’t ready for a run at a title. The upside for these drivers is making it to the third stage, although they’ll likely be gone by, at the latest, the end of Stage 2.

PAST THEIR TIME: Being in this category doesn’t mean the driver is washed up, but former champions Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch aren’t having the type of season that would indicate they are championship contenders. It would be wise never to count out Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR champion, but he only has eight Top 10 finishes this year. Kurt Busch is seventh in points entering the playoffs, but he only has four Top 5 finishes and his days with Stewart-Haas Racing seem numbered. He’s going to need better performances to even reach Stage 3. Clint Bowyer has had a bit of a career resurgence, winning two races and ranking fifth in points as the playoffs begin, but he hasn’t done much the second half of the season.

LONG SHOTS: Denny Hamlin hasn’t won a race all season, but he was running strong late in the regular season. Some might even say he should have won a race. Perhaps Hamlin is getting his act together just at the right time. Chase Elliott only has one win this year, but he seems like the likeliest of the young drivers to break through into the upper echelon. If he can survive the first three stages, anything can happen in the final race at Homestead.

TOP CHALLENGERS: Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR champion, won the final two races of the regular season. Entering the playoffs on a hot streak, Keselowski shouldn’t be counted out. Joey Logano only has one victory this season, but he has 18 Top 10 finishes. Logano is likely to reach Stage 3 and shouldn’t be taken lightly if he reaches Homestead.

THE BIG THREE: Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are the clear favorites, with Truex just a half-step behind. Busch and Harvick have been more consistent than Truex, which is why he’s considered a shade behind them. But you should never count out the defending champion. Prediction: 1. Kyle Busch; 2. Kevin Harvick; 3. Chase Elliott; 4. Martin Truex Jr.

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